United States Veterans Foundation: Outdoors, Networking, Cameraderie U.S.Veterans Foundation, Integrity, Honor, Loyalty

February 2018

Marines stand guard while building a bridge across a ravine in a combat zone.

Photo Credit: Cpl. Shannon McMillan, USMC

Hardwired for Connection

Mike Ergo, USVF contributing writer.

USVF Contributing Writer: Mike Ergo

This past weekend I had the honor of helping to facilitate a retreat for a group of fellow Marines. Many of these men had not seen each other for years. In some cases, it had been over fifteen years since they had been in each other’s presence. But as most veterans know, we can seemingly pick up where we left off no matter how much time has past.

Connection. Purpose. Trust. Camaraderie. These are the most common answers to the question of why we miss our time in the military. Granted, looking back to our days in the service can be through rose-colored glasses. It often takes a few minutes for me to remember some of the misery that military life offered. You know, police-calling the quad for cigarette butts, standing in line at the armory three hours before it opens, endless formations waiting to be released on liberty, and so on.

As Sebastian Junger wrote in his latest book, “Tribe,” humans are hard-wired to have several deep, intricate social bonds. In a day in age where it is entirely possible to work, shop, and socialize from behind the screen of a laptop, these relationships are no longer necessary for survival in civilian life. Is it any wonder that after having left the military many of us can’t move on? We talk about how civilians “just don’t get it” or aren’t team players. These grievances might hold some truth, but it misses the point. According to Junger, it is the idea that we have left one of the few institutions that still require people to push beyond their preconceived limits to succeed and in times of war depend on each other for our very survival. Let that sink in. The military requires we go “all in” and then some. When’s the last time you had to do that since being handed a DD214? If you have, then chances are it was during a natural disaster.

Okay, so why is this such a big deal? Because I hate to see veterans looking to the past like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite and lamenting that things will never be as good as they were then. I call bullshit. Not with any finger pointing or blame at the hoards of veterans who get nostalgic. It’s hard to form the same kind of trust and partnership with others who are ignorant of the sacrifices of deployments and combat. Thankfully our service to this country spares our family and friends of this. But ask yourself this, do you feel disconnected from others around you? Do you feel disconnected from yourself?

U.S. Marines standing for a photo together.

Photo Credit: provided by Mike Ergo

As a veteran diagnosed with PTSD after coming home from Iraq, I sure felt out of place and lacking purpose as a civilian. It took me years of alcoholism, heartache, and therapy to find the path back to myself. When I was able to feel whole again, it was through a practice of very simple principles. The ideas were simple in concept, but not easy in their practical application. To understand what worked for me and share it with others, I wrote a short eBook entitled, Transitions from War: Reconnecting with Mind, Body, and Spirit. I wanted to give all of us a way to incorporate these ideas into our everyday life as quickly as possible to see that we can find a profound connection and purpose to this present moment.

Reconnecting to the mind, body, and spirit is a journey we must all take in different ways. It involves noticing if how we are feeding these three areas are healthy. Here is a preview of what you can expect to see in the eBook. Before I go any further, please rest assured this eBook is entirely free. No gimmicks. No need to sign up for anything. No cults or weird, hippy bullshit.

The Body

Most of us know what it takes to be physically healthy. Eat good food, exercise consistently, and sleep well. Some of the traps I stumbled into were trying to go too hard, too fast after a few months - okay, YEARS - of sitting on couches and barstools. I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. Then I jumped right into the same level of PT I did during active duty. Within a couple of weeks, I was either burnt out or injured, and often both. The cycle continued, while I got fatter and more discouraged. The word recovery only applied to my hangovers. Starting a little slower and staying patient enough to allow my body to recover between workouts was vital. This was the easy part. So what about the Mind and Spirit?

The Mind

Getting into therapy helped me to see the unconscious patterns of my mind. My readjustment counselor helped me notice things like Automatic Negative Thoughts. These are the thoughts that popped up in my head like “There’s no use trying to get to know that person, they’ll just let me down at some point” or “ I can’t tell my wife about that, she would never understand.” Slowing down and noticing these behind-the-scenes monologues helped me to examine whether or not I was just trying to avoid dealing with fear or sadness. Suddenly I had more choices. My therapists helped me to understand how our thoughts and feelings are largely outside of our control, but our actions are always within our control. No longer were these feelings holding me hostage. Outside of traditional therapy, I meditated. A few teachers helped me to better observe these thoughts and without blocking them out or clinging onto them I could let them pass by while I continued to pursue my goals and live in accordance with my values. For example, before a big race my mind could say “this is too hard, just give up” and my body could start to feel the anxiety and fear, but I could decide to go through with it anyways because it was important to Me.

The Spirit

The word “spirit” has many definitions and religious uses, but in this context, I use it as a synonym of “purpose” and “fulfillment.” Our purpose and fulfillment in the military came from working as a team to complete a mission. No matter how terrible, how miserable, to see that others stood alongside us in the trenches made it bearable. Letting our teammates down was worse than death. Pursuing our dreams and goals, no matter how hard they might seem, gives us purpose. Authentically connecting with other people provides us with the courage to take that first step. Outside of my family, I authentically connect with people in organizations like Team RWB, my local swim team, and my neighborhood.

Take a few minutes to read my eBook, Transitions from War: Reconnecting with Mind, Body, and Spirit. Notice what calls to you. If it’s worth pursuing, you can count on feeling that ping of fear. That’s a good thing. This journey isn’t meant to be taken solo. Even if it is only one other fellow veteran or a civilian in your life, bring them along so you can pull each other further towards discovering just how much potential you really have.